he English summer is a difficult period
for politicians in general and governments in particular.
As much of a challenge, or a greater one, as it is for
who take their holidays at home. You get your tan from
standing in the English rain. The 'silly season', the dog day afternoons
when all the papers have different 'stories' on their front
pages, which, of course, means that there are no stories.
Not much chance for politicians to grandstand on big issues
(or even on small ones, if we think fourteen pints of beer
a day is small).
After Blair's problems with the Womens' Institute in the
early summer he ran into further problems with people, who
had been thought to be, at the heart of 'New' Labour expressing
Even Ken Follett, who was so much part of the charmed circle
of the Blairite tendency was expressing his doubts. Who can
forget that heart stopping moment on election night in 1997
when it seemed, as the television pictures came in from Harlow,
that horror of horrors, the Folletts were not going to be
able to get their champagne open?
The false dichotomy between the 'heartlands' and 'middle
England' has surely, by now, been exposed as the nonsense
that it is. People in Liverpool and Wimbledon voted Labour
in 1997 not because of their similar life histories but because
they wanted to draw a line under what had gone before and
start a new chapter. It seems as though starting a new tale
is more difficult than it appeared to be back in the days
when any victory over the Thatcher/Major hegemony looked like
a break in the clouds.
Most on the left have not been disillusioned, mainly because
they did not have any illusions in the first place. The record
of previous Labour governments has never been a happy one
(with the exception of the Attlee government's domestic policies
post-1945). Many who supported the broad sweep of the modernisation
of the Labour Party in the 1980s and early 1990s must now
feel tricked, fooled, deceived and humiliated. That includes
me. Of course we always knew the truth. If you buy a Rolex
watch from a stall in a shop doorway it cannot be a 'Rolex',
whatever you would like to think. 'New' Labour was always
going to be a fraud, a pretence, smoke and mirrors. Pretending
to be a break with the past but actually proving to be a continuation
of it. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has hit the spot when he
calls Blair "Thatcher in trousers". Yet there was
no reason why it needed to be like this.
In May 1997 popular feeling was for change not more of the
same. This feeling came from ordinary people, whether the
'core' voters of the traditional Labour base amongst the manual
working class and the non-working poor, or the big sections
of middle class people (particularly in the public sector)
who had just had enough in those last years of the Thatcherite
experiment in permanent revolution. 'New' Labour has failed
to deliver in its first three years. That is the blunt fact
of the matter. Are secondary school classes smaller? Are hospital
waiting lists shorter? Do we have a more compassionate society
where the weak and the vulnerable are given more chances?
To ask these questions is to answer them.
'New' Labour had its chance. A massive parliamentary majority
which had given it a mandate in almost all parts of the country,
apart from the most true blue reservations of the rich. Here,
surely, was the chance for radical action. No, of course,
caution had to be the watch word. The NHS, schools, universities
and public transport needed to be starved of adequate funding
in order to prove that Blair and Brown had put 'responsible'
into the extended title of 'New' Labour. How many times have
we heard the apologists for what has happened over the last
three years explain that it is only the first term and the
important thing is to win a second term and then the real
changes can begin. Hang on, you cannot make big changes with
a majority of 179 but you will be able to when that majority
has been reduced to 70 or 30. I should coco.
The 'New' Labour machine has been revealed as very bad at
almost the only thing it could base its legitimacy on, winning
elections. Let us just face up to it, at the ballot box 'New'
Labour is rubbish. The voters do not turn out and the cynicism
which afflicted the British public in the run up to the 1997
election is being repeated in spades. We can, perhaps, forgive
the people who have made a life out of being on the 'correct'
side of the argument in the Labour Party in the 1970s and
1980s. God might forgive them, but I cannot. People who banged
the left-wing drum and then wanted places of power and privilege.
Apparently it really does suit the meek and base.
The truth is that the opportunities have been squandered.
Ministers spinning against each other through their aides
and favoured journalists is only the half of it. These people
are so shallow that in a leaked letter Blair described Brown
and Mandelson as "two of the greatest minds of their
generation". Tony, you must get out more. They just do
not seem to inhabit the world I know. I guess that Blair does
not talk to people at the Tesco meat counter or at the plant
section in Homebase. My own little focus group was when I
was shut up in a hospital ward with a broken ankle and had
a random collection of fracture victims tell me what they
thought of 'New' Labour in power. It was not good. As for
talking to people at work, well most of us are not employed
in an environment where everyone wants to prove to us that
they love and admire us more than the next person on the ladder
of flattery and toadying. The other worldly nature of the
lives that they lead is astonishing. A politician who has
lost contact with reality is never a pretty sight. Apparently
pride comes before a fall and there is no shortage of hubris
amongst the present administration. The saga of the leaked
memos is but emblematic of the government's problems. Though
why anyone would want to leak a Philip Gould memo rather than
using it for a more appropriate purpose is beyond me.
In Tay Garnett's 1949 movie A Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthur's Court the stand-out scene is when the three
stars, Bing Crosby, William Bendix and Cedric Hardwicke sing
a song which has the following opening verses:
"We're busy doing nothing
working the whole day through
trying to find lots of things not to do.
We're busy going nowhere, isn't just a crime?
We'd like to be unhappy but . we never do have the time."
Perhaps at Labour's conference this ditty could replace The
Red Flag and Auld Lang Syne, since the words are
easy to remember it would save all that embarrassing mumbling
on the platform. Well, it would be wrong to say that the present
government has been busy doing nothing. On the contrary it
has been doing the wrong things. Single parent benefits, pensions,
student finance, disability living allowance, asylum seekers,
air traffic control, the London Underground and the future
of the Royal Mail - all wrong. But there is a mean spirit
that pervades the decisions taken. With their pinched faces
and stupid grins what they are really saying is that Thatcher
was right and that any attempt to found a society on just
and humane principles is a chimera, a fantasy, the illusions
of schoolchildren, not the stuff of adult discourse.
Of course some individual Labour MPs have been "busy
doing nothing" except, as W. S. Gilbert put it they have
"always voted at my party's call and never thought of
thinking for myself at all". We might assume that many
of these will be seeking alternative forms of employment after
the next election. It is like filling in the winning numbers
on the lottery ticket and then, when you get to the counter,
buying a Mars bar instead. Of course with a majority of 179
being whipped to vote in divisions is a bit like being busy
doing nothing, particularly when the majority is, apparently,
not big enough to ensure simple things like a ban on hunting
The more important point is that the government and, by implication,
the whole 'New' Labour, grandly titled, project has been busy
going nowhere. But actually we know where. A second term with
a reduced majority. Problems piling up as disgruntled former
ministers begin to congregate on the backbenches. Pledges
on class sizes, hospital waiting lists and access to higher
education broken, as they must be, even if there were to be
a change of direction tomorrow. Voters turn away, or simply
stay at home, not just in the heartlands but in the suburbs
and small towns where people wanted, and expected, better.
We can imagine the consequences, not just the defeat of the
party, but a melt-down, a civil war more vicious than anything
we experienced in the early 1980s. I am actually in favour
of witch hunts when there are real witches.
Of course this has all happened before. In George Dangerfield's
classic work of 1936, The Strange Death of Liberal England,
a work which Tony Blair is apparently familiar with, the opening
chapter outlines the struggles and conflicts which threatened
to tear apart Edwardian Britain. The confrontation between
the Commons and the Lords, Home Rule for Ireland and the Ulster
question, industrial unrest and votes for women. During this
time of trouble the Liberals, in 1906, scored their greatest
election victory, indeed one of the greatest election victories
of all time. But as Dangerfield relates, "From that victory
they never recovered."